Oscar-nominated director Deepa Mehta’s (Water) latest film is Heaven on Earth, winner of the Best Screenplay award (Deepa Mehta) at the Dubai International Film Festival and the Best Actress award (Preity Zinta) at the Chicago International Film Festival. Heaven on Earth opens in India in both Punjabi and Hindi under the title Videsh.
A young, vivacious Punjabi girl, Chand (Zinta), moves from her village to Brampton, Canada, to marry a man whom she has never met. There, we see the struggles, compromises, and acculturation of the new bride.
Does this remind anyone of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, or Mira Nair’s Namesake? Like Brick Lane, Brampton boasts a large Indian population, over 30 percent of the city’s total, though the film does not touch on the demographic details. Chand moves into the overcrowded home of her husband Rocky (Bhardwaj), who also lives with his elderly parents (Johal, Cheema), his sister (Sharma), her husband, and their children. Mehta captures the claustrophobic feel of this family meticulously, and once the reality of Rocky’s short temper and abusive nature is revealed, Chand’s helplessness is palpable. The movie is also reminiscent of Jagmohan Mundhra’s Provoked, had the film been focused on the abusive relationship between the husband and the wife, though Mehta’s film is far more harrowing.
Heaven on Earth takes an unexpected mythical twist when a King Cobra is discovered in the front yard of their Canadian home; according to legend, the King Cobra can take any form it chooses. The rest of the film is a mixture of reality and fantasy.
Mehta establishes the difficulties of the struggling immigrant family flawlessly. But the film’s pace is rather sluggish. When the King Cobra is introduced two-thirds of the way into the film, it is no longer clear if the film is a feminist statement against the inequalities faced by immigrant women, or if it is a Shyamalan-inspired fantasy tale about the legends of cobras. Rocky’s character remains one-sided, and predictably blows up at Chand at any given moment. Rocky’s parents provide comedic relief, as the mother-in-law puts on histrionic antics to keep Rocky under her manipulative spell. The teenage children also provide a few laughs, as they struggle to maintain their Canadian identity in a very traditional Punjabi home. The film, which could have been a short, runs for 100 minutes, and then ends abruptly.
Zinta delivers a truthful performance, and newcomer theater-actor Bhardwaj is good. In fact, the entire cast is well put together, and each plays her roles convincingly. Only Deepa Mehta’s contribution is lacking, for her dragged-out screenplay results in a disappointing, laugh-worthy climax that will make even the staunchest Mehta-fans roll their eyes.
|Antara Bhardwaj is an independent filmmaker based in San Francisco.|